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‘Spiritual singleness’ and the support of Sisters

by
27 November 2020

Stina Kielsmeier-Cook’s husband lost his faith, but nuns helped her navigate her own beliefs. Interview by Vicky Walker

istock

Young people talk together at the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary, Old Havana, Cuba, in 2018

Young people talk together at the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary, Old Havana, Cuba, in 2018

VW: You married another Christian, and, several years into that, when life seemed very stable and predictable, your husband decided that he didn’t believe any more. What happened next?

Stina Kielsmeier-Cook: The entire basis on which we had dated and got married was centred on this common faith; so I was left reeling in that first year. I went through a period of grieving, having to reckon with a dream or an idea of what I thought life was going to be like, and what I thought God had called me to and had blessed in a particular way.

So there was a lot of grief that I had to acknowledge and process, and yet in and through that realising that some of the ideas I had been given about marriage and about relationships were not necessarily the truest.

VW: “Spiritual singleness” is a theme you work out throughout the book. What form did that take, and where have you ended up?

Katzie & Ben PhotographyStina Kielsmeier-Cook

SK-C: It was a really helpful term for me, because it named the experience that I was going through. I stumbled across this monastic community in my neighbourhood, a group of Catholic Sisters [Order of the Visitation] who are celibate; they take a lifelong vow to be single, and I was really attracted to their liturgy, their lifestyle, the way they were very present to people in the neighbourhood through their ministry, and I wondered if there was something I shared with them because they had committed to this singleness, and I was feeling very much spiritually single.

I decided to join a year-long spiritual-formation programme they were offering at the monastery. I followed this idea of “spiritual singleness”, and it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that, by the end of the story, it becomes clear that the Sisters do not like that term at all.

They don’t identify with it; they don’t consider themselves spiritually single in the way that I considered myself spiritually single; and that points to this discovery: that none of us can live a Christian faith on our own — there is a body of Christ to which we all belong. We need each other.

We need to be reading scripture in community, and praying with each other, and encouraging one another, and that’s what the Visitation charism is all about: it’s about this relationality and mutuality, as shown in the Visitation story between Mary and Elizabeth, which is about encouraging and uplifting other people, and I really experienced that with the Sisters.
 

VW: You’ve stayed married and described an ongoing renegotiation, in effect. What have you discovered about mixed-faith marriage?

SK-C: You can have a happy mixed-faith marriage. I didn’t know that, initially: that love can cover many different divisions.

Even if you are married to someone who shares your faith, there are going to be times when you are not in the same place with your faith, and there are a range of issues on which you might differ; and I’ve learned that this isn’t this tragedy that I initially started talking about, it isn’t something I needed to necessarily fix or change. It is a vehicle through which God can move.

I met other couples who are in similar mixed-faith marriages, and I realise that 40 per cent of marriages in the US are interfaith, and this is a dynamic that a lot of people are working through in their relationships, and a lot of people are doing it well.
 

VW: You’ve talked about how you’ve learned lessons from the Sisters’ pattern of life, and one of the phrases you used was “wisdom baked into the structure, and that weathers the challenges of committed community life”.

SK-C: The Sisters that I know — there is such a joy in their presence when you’re with them. They’re fully present whoever they’re with, and part of this is because this particular order, the Visitation order, really does value relationships and mutuality as being one of their core tenets.

This particular group of Sisters is in an urban neighbourhood with a high poverty rate; so there are lots of people coming and knocking on their door because they need help getting a bus token, or a gift card for groceries, or whatever it might be, and every person that comes to the door is greeted as Christ. Jesus has come to our door: that is the countenance and the joy in which the Sisters interact with people, and they’re human.

Whenever I’m with them, I get this sense that “this person is really listening to me and is present to me,” and that’s such a gift to people.

To have that orientation to being really present to someone else, the Sisters pray the Liturgy of the Hours; so, four times a day, they’re coming together to read the scriptures; they each take a personal retreat once a year for ten days where they’re in silence; and many of them have a spiritual director.

VW: You write about how, when women went into religious orders in the Middle Ages, it was to reclaim their lives and have a degree of control over their existence. What do you think the appeal is now?

SK-C: Here, in the US, the number of Sisters who are joining new monastic communities is way, way down. In our modern culture, how disconnected people can be, how lonely.

I talk about one of the Sisters in my book who had been a Protestant; she had been a single missionary in Asia for most of her adult life, and felt that the Protestant Church didn’t know what to do with her as a single woman.

When she would be back in the US and go to her church in Texas, the group was called “Spares and pairs”, where women who didn’t have a partner were put in certain boxes. Her decision to become a Catholic Sister has lots of different elements to it, but one of the appeals is that there is a place for women to be single in a community and live this prophetic lifestyle — which is not impossible to do in other ways, but it can be hard, it can be lonely.

Living in community is also hard, and it can be lonely, but there’s a certain honour and respect placed around that calling to be a Sister, or a Brother, or a priest. I think, at least in the Protestant traditions that I’ve been part of, there isn’t any equivalent for that.
 

VW: You tried different outworkings of your faith. You call it “denominational wandering”, and mention being worried that you’re constantly in shallow soil. Is this generational?

SK-C: This is definitely something that I share with people in my own age cohort. Some of those distinctions between different traditions in the Christian family are becoming less important, like infant versus adult baptism, or around different understandings of communion.

There’s this real hunger for an authentic faith; a faith that isn’t just a set of beliefs but is also a way of life, and the “denominational wandering” is also part of having greater access to the internet to explore and access communities. Things were just more black and white than they are now.

VW: Is there an inevitability about this kind of situation for the millennial generation in particular?

SK-C: Generally, young adults are walking away from institutions of all kinds and it’s because we’re more aware now of how these institutions have failed. When you’ve been hurt by the Church, or one of these organisations, there’s a reckoning that needs to happen around “Why should I go back and put my faith and trust in a place that has not protected children, or has not treated LGBTQ people with dignity? Or has certain kinds of beliefs and practices that have been harmful?”

Deconstruction can be a good thing, because it means that someone really cares; it means that they are looking at the world and saying, “What does that mean?” I don’t think that’s something we need to be scared of, but there needs to be space for lament and space for truth telling, and for the Church to have humility.

If the Church can demonstrate in and through living out the gospel in prophetic ways by doing what Jesus said, of looking to the least of these — who are the most honoured and most unvalued because of the way society treats them — if the Church can model those things, then there’s a way to go back from deconstruction, because there is good in this tradition, and sometimes we hear only the bad news, the heartbreak.

There’s a long tradition of wrestling with God, of asking questions and realising that things are more complicated than when we were kids, and yet there’s enough that you can still claim to say: this part is true, so I can continue taking the next steps. And we need older generations to model that.

That’s part of what attracted me to the Sisters: here are these women who live faithfully for decades and decades; there’s wisdom in their way of life that I was attracted to because they are stable, and still willing to do good in what seems like a hard, dark world sometimes.

VW: Can you say something about the “Nuns and Nones” group that you now facilitate, and that is a new shape for your faith community?

SK-C: I still attend a church on Sunday mornings with my kids, but I have also been part of a small group of people who meet once a month, and now are meeting over Zoom; it’s a group of Catholic Sisters — some of the Sisters from the Visitation order, but some Sisters from another order from the Twin Cities area who have joined us, and most of them are 50 and older.

And then we have a group of millennials: some who are religiously affiliated and some who are not, but all are at least interested in talking about spirituality, or talking about seeking some kind of understanding of God or faith or mystery.

Nuns and Nones is a place where we come together to have conversations about faith that is open to anyone attending. It creates a space for someone who is seeking, or maybe has some questions about faith and spirituality, but who would never walk into a church and say “Let me join your young adult group.” Because there’s this assumption that you would have to be a Christian to participate in the life of this congregation; so it’s a really wonderful place.

I always learn something, whether it’s the wisdom the Sisters have to share, or even what questions my fellow millennials are asking right now.

A lot of it comes out to: how can we live a good holy life in this world, and how do we stay engaged in fighting for justice in the communities in which we live without burning out completely? What are the practices that can sustain engagement in the world?

That’s where the Sisters have so much to offer in particular, as they have made this commitment to live out certain rhythms that are very counter-cultural, but have given them that maturity and stability to continue being present to whoever knocks on their door. That’s remarkable.

VW: As your children are getting older, what would you advise them about life, expectations, relationships, and marriage and faith?

SK-C: I hope that, for them, any relationship that they pursue — marriage or otherwise — would be grounded in respect for the other, and also that they would take ownership of their part, and who it is that God has called them to be, and embrace their faith. And not just in the Christian world, but our society says that this person has got to be your be-all and end-all, your soulmate, and you share a mutual love for each other.

We need community, we need relational beings in our life; we’re not meant to pin all our expectations on one human being, because that’s just too much for any one person to hold.

Stina Kielsmeier-Cook is managing editor of Bearings Online, a publication of the Collegeville Institute. Listen to the full interview on the Church Times podcast: churchtimes.co.uk/podcast.

 

‘So how was your talk with the nun?’

Stina Kielsmeier-Cook worried about her husband’s exposure 

MY FIRST encounter with nuns came a few years ago, when I started working for the Collegeville Institute, an ecumenical non-profit located on the grounds of St John’s Abbey. The abbey is home to one of the largest Benedictine monastic communities in North America.

When I was hired, I received a pamphlet on Benedictine values that, beyond having read The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris, was my first introduction to this ancient form of Christian spirituality.

It wasn’t until one evening, at a special dinner hosted at the abbey, that I reconsidered the relevance of monastic values in my life. Norris was the keynote speaker, and she had agreed to an interview with me for the Collegeville Institute’s website the following day.

I felt simultaneously euphoric and nauseous at the prospect of meeting my literary hero, whose books had bolstered me when faith felt tenuous. I convinced my husband to drive an hour north from our home in Minneapolis to Collegeville for the event, but I immediately regretted it when we stepped inside the banquet hall.

My husband was no longer a Christian, and the room was filled with them. Monks, nuns, professors of theology, and other professional religious types were mingling near the refreshment table, sipping from delicate wine glasses and nibbling crackers with cheese. And who will my husband talk to? I wondered, as I surveyed the crowd.

We took our places at assigned seats at a table in the far-right corner. On the other side of Josh was a woman in her seventies with an enthusiastic grin, slightly oversized teeth, and short, curly, white hair.

“Hello!” she said, shaking our hands and introducing herself as Sister Theresa. I would never have guessed she was a nun from her simple black sweater and gray slacks. We learned she had been on the board of the Collegeville Institute for over a decade and was a member of the women’s monastic community at Saint Benedict’s Monastery a few miles away.

“For how long?” my husband asked.

“Well, I took my vows when I was 18,” she replied. “And it will be my 60th anniversary soon, my diamond jubilee.”

“Wow,” we replied, in unison.

 

EVERY so often I would glance over to Josh and Sister Theresa, who were happily chatting away. Later, as we were walking out to the parking lot to find our car, I asked Josh, “So how was your conversation with the nun? You two seemed to hit it off.”

“She was great,” he said. “People are people.”

“Did you tell her you weren’t a Christian?” I asked him.

“Yeah, I told her that and about my missionary kid background,” he replied. “She didn’t seem to be concerned. She said that she’s a spiritual director and that it’s not her place to judge — that everyone is on a journey with God.”

“Huh,” I said while sliding into the car and clicking on my seatbelt. The next morning, after a fitful night’s sleep, I showed up early to the abbey guesthouse for the interview. Benedictine spirituality, she told me, is for all of us. Monastic traditions predates major schisms in the Church, and are, therefore, the common inheritance of all Christians, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or otherwise. It’s a spirituality that she felt no qualms in claiming, even as a Protestant.

As the conversation wound down, and we walked back to the front desk of the guesthouse, Kathleen handed me a free copy of Give Us This Day from a display stand. “This,” she said, pointing to the monthly Catholic prayer book, “is how I stay connected to the spirituality, even when I can’t pray regularly with a monastic community.”

As I took the book from her hands and leafed through its pages, I blurted out the question I had been holding. “But what about your husband?” I asked her, knowing from her books that her late husband was a lapsed Catholic. They had met and married before Norris discerned her call to be a Benedictine oblate, before she reconnected with God and began practicing her faith as an adult. “Was that hard being in different places spiritually?”

“Oh, he made friends with the monks while he was here,” she said, waving her hand as if to encompass the whole of the abbey.

And that was that.

 

I THANKED her again for the interview and, after she walked away, I stood at the front desk for a while, feeling like I could cry. Why had I thought that this person, esteemed author though she be, would have the answers I was looking for about marriage? And why had I thought it would be appropriate to ask her something so personal?

As I drove home on I-94 past cornfields, pro-life billboards, and the outlet mall, I rehashed the conversation over and over, occasionally hitting the steering wheel with my palm. Norris had seemed unruffled. But why?

Maybe she hadn’t wanted to talk about such things with a stranger. Yet both she and Sister Theresa showed little concern or fear in engaging with people who had lost faith entirely. Was that a Benedictine thing?

It was so unlike the response I saw from the conservative members of our families, who sat Josh down whenever they could and tried to reason with him (making the case for Christ!). It was so unlike my own fear, which wondered if my marriage would crumble without common religious conviction. If you’re not aligned spiritually, then nothing will match up.

Later, at home, I dug out the Benedictine values pamphlet I had unceremoniously buried in my desk drawer a year earlier. Virtues distilled from the Rule of Saint Benedict, such as hospitality, respect for all persons, listening, and stability (“to stand firm in one’s promises”), seemed to lend a gentle posture toward religious outsiders while still maintaining a strong, vibrant faith identity.

Whatever those Benedictines had, I wanted it.

 

Adapted from Blessed Are the Nones by Stina Kielsmeier-Cook (IVP, £11.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10.79)).

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